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Oil flow starts with a trickle

No. 10 on the list of most-wanted Iraqis is among four officials in U.S. custody.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2003

BASRA, Iraq -- Engineers began restoring the lifeblood of Iraq's shattered economy Wednesday, pumping crude oil for the first time since the war. Although the oil is not for export, the quick startup means one of Iraq's largest fields could be back to prewar production levels within weeks.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Robert Crear turned the tap at a storage facility outside the southern city of Basra and watched as slick black crude dribbled from the spigot and oozed between his fingers.

"Now we're in the oil business," Crear said, laughing.

Also Wednesday, American forces took into custody four top officials of Saddam Hussein's former government, including No. 10 on the list of the 55 most-wanted in Iraq.

But an official scratched off the list weeks ago, Ali Hassan al Majid -- "Chemical Ali" -- may not have been killed after all.

The new trickle of oil will be used for domestic production only. It sprang from just four of hundreds of wells in Iraq's southern oil heartland.

But the rekindled petroleum production is a sign that Iraq is already capitalizing on its biggest natural resource and top economic hope.

Once transformed into refined products such as fuel oil, the petroleum will be distributed throughout the southern part of the country for use in vehicles, power plants and generators, officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said.

Twelve wellheads in the Rumeila oil fields were believed to have been sabotaged by retreating Iraqis, who blew up some and set fire to others. The fires are out, but workers are still assessing which wellheads can be salvaged.

Money from international oil sales is expected to be the major source of income to help Iraq rebuild after three wars and more than a decade of economic sanctions. Crear said it was unclear when exports might resume.

Any loss of oil from Iraq -- home to the world's second-largest oil reserves -- crimps supplies for importing countries, including the United States, which gets 2 percent of its imported crude from Iraq.

Iraq shut down oil production in mid March ahead of the war. Before that, the country was pumping about 2.8-million barrels a day, or 3 percent of global supplies. More than half came from the Rumeila and other fields near Basra.

Oil fields near the northern town of Kirkuk are still shut down, though there are signs they could start coming back soon. When back up, they can produce about 900,000 barrels.

To reach those production levels again, experts estimate it will cost $3-billion to $5-billion over two years.

U.S.-led teams of American, British and Iraqi oilhands tapped four wells Tuesday in the Rumeila field. On Wednesday, they pumped the oil 38 miles across the desert from a gas-oil separation plant to storage tanks just outside Basra to await refinement.

Engineers had hoped to pump the oil all the way to the Basra refinery, but unexploded ordnance lying near a section of the pipeline made it unfeasible. Workers hope to clear away the ordnance and get the crude there by Saturday.

It will take three days of treatment to turn it into fuel.

"Our focus in restoring the oil is to give the biggest benefit to the Iraqi people. That means restoring the infrastructure," Crear said.

It could take anywhere from six weeks to almost four months to get the Rumeila oil field back up to producing 1.1-million barrels a day, Crear said. However, analyst Raad Alkadiri of the Petroleum Finance Co., a consulting firm in Washington, called that forecast a "best-case scenario."

There are more than 1,000 oil wells in the Rumeila field, feeding 34 gas-oil separation plants. But only one separation plant has been restarted. Engineers hope the other plants will come on line over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, the latest captures bring to 11 the number of top former Iraqi officials in U.S. custody.

The highest-ranking official in the group is Muzahim Sa'b Hassan al-Tikriti, who headed Iraq's air defenses under Hussein. He was the queen of diamonds in the military's deck of playing cards.

Al-Tikriti also reportedly helped train the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam forces, which U.S. officials have accused of committing war crimes.

Gen. Zuhayr Talib Abd al-Sattar al-Naqib, the former head of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, surrendered to U.S. troops Wednesday, a senior Pentagon official said. The 56-year-old al-Naqib, No. 21 on the most-wanted list, told the Los Angeles Times before his surrender that he had no apologies for his involvement in Hussein's government. He also made it clear that he had not always agreed with the Iraqi leader.

Also captured Wednesday was Muhammad Mahdi al-Salih, the former Iraqi trade minister and No. 48.

The fourth official was Salim Said Khalaf al-Jumayli, a Mukhabarat officer formerly in charge of American operations, a senior U.S. official said. Al-Jumayli, not among the 55 most-wanted, is suspected of having knowledge of Iraqi intelligence activities in the United States, including names of people spying for Iraq.

But one top official reportedly killed in an airstrike may still be on the loose.

Hospital workers said they saw Majid -- "Chemical Ali" -- alive in Baghdad just before the city fell, contradicting British Army claims that he had been killed in an air raid on a house in the southern city of Basra days earlier, Knight Ridder Newspapers reported.

Witnesses said Majid, who ordered poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages in 1988 that killed 5,000 civilians, was at the Baghdad Nursing Hospital on April 6 or 7.

Dr. Abdel Azziz al Bayaah, the hospital's director, said Majid, Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmed, an Iraqi bodyguard and some 10 non-Iraqi gunmen left the hospital after spending the night while doctors treated Ahmed and the bodyguard.

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